When storytelling goes wrong

I was just musing, up to my gills on painkillers. And I got to thinking...

It has been said that human beings are not, in fact, Homo sapiens - the Wise Man - but that were are in fact Pan narrans - the Storytelling Ape.

I believe I heard this first from Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, and it's an idea I'm much enamoured with. It's true that, if anything, humans in general are far from wise. When we think intuitively, we're often, if not usually, wrong. Suckered in by charlatans, tricked by cults, bamboozled by the way the real world works, we invent stories to explain the things we observe and in doing so, fall prey to our own biases and cognitive failings.

Humans, I would say, aren't smart by default.

The thing is, our propensity for inventing and consuming stories is probably the thing that initially drove our success as a species. What really separates us from the rest of the animal "kingdom" is our use of technology coupled with our use of transmissible units of culture - stories - often termed "memes".

Imagine, for instance, pleistocene man passing on the secrets of, say, fire. Or the movements of the great mammoth herds. Or the best way to hunt elk while avoiding large predators.

Our friend pleistocene man would probably have held this knowledge in the form of a story or meme. "When you rub these sticks together really hard, they get angry, and their anger causes fire" explains things perfectly, but is far further from the truth than "rubbing these sticks together causes friction, which heats the material, eventually triggering, with careful managment, combustion". Ancient memes would have been passed on in this way, and the ones that were more interesting would have been easier to remember, and more popular in the retelling, and so thrived. And, in parallel, the ones that were most useful would have had high importance and so would have ended up being made more interesting, because if your important memes were made interesting, well, that resulted in a more effective tribe. Interesting and useful would have had a co-evolutionary trajectory. Interesting stories and useful stories, barreling aloing together in evolutionary time, feeding off each other. But the important thing is that the truth value of them is not important to this relationship - the only important thing is that they're successful. They just need to reproduce and survive.

"Disease broke out because the gods were angry with sin, so we should stay indoors to avoid the eyes of the gods and ostracise the sufferers because it's their fault" is a meme that is entirely wrong, but leads, luckily, to a breaking of the transmission chain. A successful meme, which if couple with an interesting allegory or two actually benefits those who propagate it. Yet it's entirely wrong. It's easy to make interesting - you just tack on a story or two about the gods and how they think, and maybe something about a human hero who managed to figure it all out and your meme is launched. But it's wrong. But interesting to Pan narrans.

We do this kind of thing to this day. Look, for instance, in the direction of religion. Religious morality tends to be encapsulated in stories, allegories, which allow the passing on of units of culture, memes, to the next generation in an interesting and memorable manner. Look at popular science writing. Carl Sagan's Cosmos, one of the best science series' ever, takes a narrative format for many of its most memorable segments. Sometimes looking forward, sometimes looking back, it takes the form of a story, and we humans are suckers for stories.

Which brings me, inevitably, to conspiracy theorists.

As I've said, the most interesting memes thrive. And we love conspiracies. Conspiracies form many of humanity's greatest myths. You see satan plotting and sneaking and undermining the good guys. You see Loki screwing around with the gods of Asgard. You see the gods of Olympus constantly playing intrigues against one-another, hiding heroes away, lying and hiding their cards. Human's didn't figure out fire. Prometheus stole it from the gods and handed it to man in the culmination of a series of tricks. Trickster gods - conspiracist gods - abound in human culture. We find conspiracies fascinating. Perhaps because, in the absence of better information, they allow us to codify social abstracts and rationalise away the pitiless nature of the real world.

Oh, the hunt went badly, but it wasn't our fault. evil spirits conspired against us, and so what we need to do is fight the spirits and our next hunt will go well. A couple of hundered years of confirmation bias and before you know it, the demons are real.

Conspiracy theorists seem to always go with the more fascinating option. The more convoluted and the bigger the narrative payoff, the better they seem to be. Conspiracy theories are fascinating. Conspiracies abound in fiction, from the bad guys of Sherlock Holmes to those who would see James Bond suck down his last Vesper. We know there are secrets, and when we find those secrets, we get a delicious shiver. And then we tell other people.

And this is what I think it's all about. What's more interesting? "A bunch of brainwashed religious zealots manipulated by a few guys in the middle east flew some planes into some buildings", or "Cheney was in on it, and Bush new too. And the Jews knew as well. They all plotted it together, and clearly it was done with explosives, and rmote control planes and secret CIA mind-control techniques - which I know all about - and metal just doesn't melt in fires, hey look at me, I have interesting information.". Holy Crap, I know which one would make the more gripping thriller novel to be sold at the airport bookstore.

Of course, I'd prefer a science book for my long flight, but there you go.

So I guess what I'm trying to say is that a delight for conspiracy is hard-wired in us all, because once upon a time it was more important for a story to be interesting, with side-effects, than for it to be actually true. Some people fall into the thrall of ancient modes of thinking and ignore evidence in favour of the interesting meme, and that ensures propagation. They have less truth value, but they propagate by subverting our curiosity and delight for conspiracy. 

And conpiracy theorists just aren't able to separate the interesting story from the probably-mundane reality.

It's sad, and sometimes dangerous, but it's understandable, even if it is utterly infuriating and downright dangerous.

And I'm damned if I know how to fix it.

posted @ Friday, July 16, 2010 12:47 AM


Comments on this entry:

# re: When storytelling goes wrong

Left by Sean the Blogonaut at 7/17/2010 4:20 PM
If it was easy we'f have done it by now - fix it I mean.
Do you think its easier to identify with narrative, and thereby encode it? Perhaps the answer is passing on scientific ideas in story form?

# re: When storytelling goes wrong

Left by Jason at 7/17/2010 4:27 PM
I really think it is easier to absorb ideas if they have some kind of narrative around them. The "science of" books are a case in point. "Science of Jurassic Park" would teach a layperson more about genetics than a stack of Dawkins, Gould and Watson. "Science of Star Trek" probably introduced more people to high-end physics than a month of Hawking would.

Linking science to a strong narrative makes it easy to devour, but it does run the risk of mixing non-science with science, because narrative is always a metaphor for deeper ideas.
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